John the Baptist: Repentance, our Toxic Hyper-individualism, and economics

We take a break from partisan politics in this blog. Nevertheless, I do want to address religious, economic and cultural themes. During this Advent season of the Christian faith, it is common to read a Biblical passage about John the Baptist. John´s mission was to prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His understanding of repentance was much more than mere regret for our sins. He urged a transformation in all areas of our lives.

Let´s look at Luke´s narrative where John preaches from a passage of the prophet Isaiah which announces God´s salvation for all humanity. The multitudes responded to his message and came to be baptized, but he saw through their hypocrisy and cut through their superficiality.

He told them, ¨Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.” What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:8-14)

John was asked by three different groups (the crowd, tax collectors, and soldiers) what they should do to demonstrate “fruits of repentance”. His three responses have two aspects in common. First, they all deal with material possessions: shirts, food, and money. We misunderstand Biblical spirituality if we think that it only refers to the non-physical world. Godly spirituality is expressed in this materialistic world (Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us). John proclaimed the beginning of a new era where we no longer worship money and material things. In a demonstration of the Kingdom of God erupting among us, these material possessions are utilized to bring about our neighbor’s wellbeing.

The second common aspect is that repentance towards God includes just interpersonal relationships. All humans bear God’s image, whether they are the poorest of the poor, tax collectors or taxpayers, soldiers who oppress others or ordinary citizens who suffer oppression. As God’s representatives, all people deserve the love and respect we want to extend towards God.

A radical, but reasonable, standard for our society.

  1. John the Baptist’s message calls into question the toxic hyper/individualism of our culture. According to the Bible, I am not the absolute “owner” of “my” possessions. God wants me to steward the items under my control in such a way that all of my neighbors have enough to live with dignity. This is the ethical norm of ¨Enough¨. No one should have more than they need while others do not have enough. This is radical teaching and I certainly do not live up to this goal. Nevertheless, it is quite reasonable. Good parents practice this ¨enough¨ ethical system with all of their children.
  2. We tend to think that our individualism is good as long as it doesn´t intentionally hurt others. In our culture, individual happiness is perceived as determining the difference between right and wrong. John the Baptist challenges our apathy. Our indifference to our needy neighbors definitely harms them and perhaps leads to their premature death. Sins of omission can be just as deadly as sins of commission.
  3. Our ¨advanced¨ society, at times, argues about how much is a ¨fair¨ minimum wage. For all of its many faults, the Roman Empire knew that all workers should earn a wage that could support a family with dignity. John the Baptist implies this when he claims that soldiers provide for their families with their ¨pay¨.
  4. In their desire to emphasize God´s grace and forgiveness, many churches have downplayed the Biblical teaching regarding repentance, especially these economic and interpersonal dimensions. But God doesn´t merely want to forgive us our past. He wants to free us from the idolatry of money and the tyranny of toxic hyper-individualism. True repentance opens us to God´s grace. (I heartily urge readers to do a word study of repentance in the New Testament to see how it is intimately connected with life and salvation.)

John the Baptist is one of the most unusual characters that emerge from the pages of Scripture, yet his message is more necessary than ever before.